Yu Jianrong (于建嵘): Maintaining a Baseline of Social Stability (Part 6)

Dr. Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), chairman of the Social Issues Research Center of the Rural Development Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences, delivered a speech entitled “Maintaining a Baseline of Social Stability” before the Beijing Lawyers Association on December 26, 2009. This is part 6 of the CDT translation, here are part 1. part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

The third characteristic of venting incidents is that there is no source of authoritative information. Ever since the internet and text messages, modern China no longer has a source of authoritative information. (PowerPoint Slide) This is Ruian City in Zhejiang Province in August 2006. Ruian is a city under the administration of Wenzhou, not large, but very prosperous. This person jumped off a building. Who is she? She was a college student studying English. She married the son of the boss of a mold making factory. Cinderella married the knight in shining armor; she should have lived happily ever after, but instead she jumped off a building. Right after she jumped off a building, her husband reported it to the police. The Public Security Bureau took a look and said that it was just a suicide. However, her family did not agree and the students of [a family member] especially did not agree. The students posted this picture to the web. On the web they asked a simple question to the people of the nation, to the people of Zhejiang, to the people of Wenzhou, and to the people of Ruian. They asked, “Would this beautiful woman kill herself?” (Laughter) The whole country’s netizens responded immediately, “No.” (Laughter) “Why would she kill herself, look at how pretty she is, so full of sunlight. Her eyes are looking forward as if towards a beautiful life. Why would she kill herself!” So a lot of people on the internet were analyzing this, “She must have been killed by him. But then how was she killed? This is how she must have been killed; he killed her then threw her down [off the building] like this.” The students once they saw this reasoning—that the whole nation’s people all said it was not suicide—thought, “What should we do about it? We have to seek justice for this teacher.” How did they seek justice? (PowerPoint Slide) You can see they took to the streets and smashed up [the husband’s] family factory and attacked the government.

That is why I said modern technology has already changed China’s political situation. It’s really quite simple. You’re wearing a really nice watch. Everyone’s cell phones nowadays can take pictures, so they take a picture of you and post it on the web saying that you are one of the nation’s civil servants and are named Leader XXX. They ask, how then can this person, on the basis of their salary, afford to wear a several hundred thousand RMB watch? They start to search online and are able to search out your ancestors going back eighteen generations. They find out what your wife is doing, what your son is doing; finally they come up with this conclusion—you are a corrupt official. This conclusion creates a huge mess. Originally when there was no internet, if one were to report an official as being corrupt on the basis of his wristwatch, the municipal Party committee secretary would take one look [at the complaint] and probably say that it was sheer nonsense. Now, if people are able to form the view on the internet that you are a corrupt official, then you have serious problems. Don’t think that if your municipal Party committee secretary doesn’t investigate you that the people will let you off. No way. The people will start to say, this person is a corrupt official; why doesn’t the municipal Party committee secretary investigate him. Then they start searching on the internet for this municipal Party committee secretary; what is this Party secretary up to? They search once, they search twice, then they discover that these two guys [the Party secretary and the official with the nice watch] originally worked together. The municipal Party committee secretary sees what is going on [and says], “Don’t search about me, search about him; investigate him.” (Laughter) So then the municipal Party committee secretary will immediately decide to hold an investigation so that the people will stop investigating him. Once investigated, sure enough—[the official with the wristwatch] is a corrupt official. Nowadays they don’t even hold an investigation. (Laughter, applause)

After the introduction of the internet, if you want to hurt someone, it is very easy. When we have our meeting you buy a pack of really nice cigarettes to give to him. The cigarettes cost 200 RMB a pack. When he enters the conference room and sits down over there, you hand him the pack of cigarettes, then have a picture taken. You then post this picture to the web. [Netizens exclaim], “How can he, one of the nation’s civil servants, afford to smoke these expensive cigarettes?” Upon investigation, the same story occurs and again, the conclusion: the person is a corrupt official. Not long ago, the head of a procuratorate was driving a nice car; he had troubles when [a picture of this was posted to] the net and [netizens] investigated, the conclusion: he had the taint of a corrupt official. So with the internet, “minor details” can be turned into public events.

There are times when we truly need to use the power of the internet to turn instances of corruption into public events, and then to turn those public events into legal events. I often think that modern society’s technology has already changed much of the political ecology. Today we have with us a rural farmer named Zhang Juzheng who is petitioning the government. Once when I was at the University of Political Science and Law giving a talk he brought a bag with him and took out something that looked like a voice recording pen. I asked him what it was. I had thought that it was a voice recording pen, which is really common. But it wasn’t. It also had a pinhole video camera! When I looked at it, I was very surprised so I asked, “So what are you, some kind of special agent?” (Laughter) He said, “I’m no special agent; I bought it. I went to Zhongguancun* and bought it for a little over 200 RMB. I didn’t believe him, but he told me that he really had bought it. I gave him some money and asked him to buy me one. Two days later he sent me one and told me they had them as small as buttons. How much did they cost? A little over 200 RMB. At the time I was really surprised, so I went to Zhongguancun and it turns out he was right. They had this kind of product everywhere, in the form of watches, buttons, everything. So now when I talk with people I first check to see if they’re carrying a pen, (laughter) and do those buttons they’re wearing look quite right? Why do I do this? I have no choice. Originally this was all high tech; only the most advanced special agents had these kinds of things. Now ordinary people all have these kinds of things. You don’t know when they’ll be used [on you].

I once spoke about how since the introduction of the copy machine, the relationship between rural farmers and the government has changed. You might know that rural farmers who find you to [help them] initiate a lawsuit bring lots of copies of central government documents with them in their pockets. You should not underestimate copy machines. Without them, the relationship between rural farmers and the government would not be the same. I’ve run into this kind of thing. When I was in Hunan doing research, these rural farmers walked into the government [building]. They slapped these documents down on the table and said, “You’re opposing the central government. We are just trying to execute the central government’s policies.” The government there was really surprised saying, “Since when have we opposed the central government?” The rural farmers said, “Take a look, this central government document says that you cannot collect taxes on a per capita basis. So why are you collecting taxes on a per capita basis?” The government official takes a look and sees that it really says this and gets really nervous. What a mess. [He asks], “When did you get this document? Why have I not yet seen it.” He probably [didn’t see it because he] was out playing mahjong, (laughter) and these ordinary people who are suing, they have been dwelling on this issue day after day. A lot of times these ordinary people have copied more documents than us lawyers. If there were no copy machine, would rural farmers dare say this? They wouldn’t. If you were to place a [hand-copied] document on whatever leader’s desk, that leader would slap the table [and say], “You’re forging central government documents!” [Because] no matter how well you copied the document, you will always copy at least one character wrong.

When I was in Hunan I met this rural farmer. In my book I wrote that he was a rural farmer publicity expert. What kind of a rural farmer was he? Before I met him, I had imagined that he would have great speaking abilities and have a commanding appearance. After meeting him I discovered he could not have been a more plainspoken farmer. What was it that he did? At the time the [agricultural] taxes and fees were being collected he was working in Guangdong and was not in his hometown. The local government came and carried his coffin off.** After returning and hearing that his coffin had been carried off he stopped working altogether. He bought a loudspeaker and a tape recorder. He had someone read central government documents about easing the burdens of rural farmers and recorded these. From then on, every day he would shoulder his load over to the entrance of the government building and play his tape. Wherever [the government] went to collect taxes, there he would also be with his loudspeaker playing recordings of the central government about easing the burdens of rural farmers. He really got those local officials to hate him, but there was nothing they could do to him; he was simply publicizing the central government’s policies! (Laughter)

When I asked this rural farmer, “Why did you use a tape recorder to record [these documents]?” He said, “First of all, I’m old and have difficulty seeing. I don’t speak smoothly. Every time I read it’s a big pain. The second reason is key, after I had this teacher do the recording, I told the local government, “I have lots and lots of tape recordings of these documents and have placed them in lots of different places. You shouldn’t think about doing anything to me because I have not said a single sentence incorrectly. Everything comes from this central government policy or from that central government document.” [He told me], “Even if someday they arrest me and put me in prison I wouldn’t be afraid; I have evidence that I was not speaking recklessly. I never spoke a single sentence; it was the central government that was doing the speaking.” (Laughter) Don’t underestimate these things. When I wrote the book I had a lot of conversations with him. I became acquainted on a deep level with rural farmers’ wisdom and rural farmers’ bravery in using the nation’s laws to counter illegal government [acts]. Supposing there were no copy machines would he dare say this? If there were no recording devices, if there were no audio tapes, would he dare publicize [the central government’s policies]? He would not. That is because the local governments could completely say that he was forging central government documents, that he was engaging in reactionary propaganda. So some of us lawyers in this regard are still not at the level of this rural farmer. I have continually recommended that everyone should use modern technology more. This is not necessarily so that you can use it as evidence; it’s so that at least you can protect yourselves. What I say on any day I have audio and video recorded.

The fourth characteristic [of venting incidents] is that there is no “baseline of rules.” Earlier, when I talked about rights defense activities I repeatedly mentioned that [the activists] were all about the rules. In contrast, venting incidents have no “baseline of rules.” Beating, smashing, looting, burning, these kinds of actions often occur and necessarily will occur [in this type of event]. If it did not occur then it would not be a venting incident. This year [2009] has also seen several large venting incidents. There was the Hainan East Side Incident, the Sichuan Nanchong Incident, etc., etc.

I have spoken about rights defense activities and venting incidents. Now I will speak about rabble-rousing. What is the difference between rabble-rousing and venting incidents? Everyone take a look at this. (PowerPoint slide) This is a rabble-rousing incident in Hunan in September, 2008. You can see they smashed the sign of the people’s government. This kind of incident occurs frequently; the key is to look over here. This is a supermarket. The people looted this supermarket. [I] later discovered that this supermarket had absolutely nothing to do with the [precipitating] event. This is the key difference between rights defense activities, venting incidents and rabble-rousing. Rabble-rousers will attack people who are unrelated [to the precipitating event]. Rights defense activities are primarily directed towards those who inflicted the harm and towards the government. Venting incidents are primarily directed towards the government and those who inflicted the harm. However, rabble-rousing activities are directed towards unrelated people. Look again; doesn’t this look like carnival? People looting supermarkets, looting stores, people giddy with joy. In October 2008 during the National Day holiday, the stores there were all basically closed and didn’t dare open. Finally they had to actually deploy field army troops to go in there before order was restored. I call this kind of action rabble-rousing. There is possibly one type of rabble-rousing activity that is sparked by ideology. The March 2008 problems in Lhasa, I also classify as rabble-rousing. The key question is whether [the incident] is directed towards unrelated people. The problems that occurred this year in Xinjiang, some people say were terrorist activities. I don’t think they were; I think they were rabble-rousing.

This is my simple generalization about mass incidents currently. The main characteristic of rights defense activities is that there is a relatively clear material request. Venting incidents do not have a clear material request, they are mainly [people] venting their feelings of resentment and anger. The key difference between rabble-rousing and venting is that rabble-rousing is directed towards unrelated people, innocent bystanders. Once you discover that the incident is directed towards innocent bystanders then you can classify the problem as rabble-rousing.

* Zhongguancun is a high-tech area in Haidain District, Beijing.

** It is common in rural China for people to purchase coffins before they die. This is for a number of reasons. First, the quality of the coffin as the long-term resting place for the body is held to be extremely important. Also, some think that an expensive coffin will help one be reincarnated as a wealthy person. Second, coffins are expensive and can cost much more than a person’s yearly salary. Therefore to ensure a proper burial, Chinese people in rural areas often buy coffins long before they die.

In rural areas, if people did not pay taxes, local government officials would sometimes go to the person’s house and take away possessions (including coffins). These would then be then be sold to pay the tax debt.

[To be continued]


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